20 May 2011

The Zero Room #8- Trouble and Strife

This time, we've got two episodes juggled out of their original place in the Series 6 running order, and yet still perfectly suitable for the third/fourth episode region of the series. It'll get moodier later on, but for now we have the historical rompage of The Curse of the Black Spot and the gorgeously challenging romance of The Doctor's Wife.

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

Seemingly timed to coincide with the new release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Curse of the Black Spot begins with the TARDIS picking up a distress call from a troubled ship. As it turns out, it's an actual sea-faring boaty kind of ship towards the end of the 17th century. Captain Avery has just taken the biggest pirate haul in history and now his ship is stranded in the middle of a still ocean, beset by an enchanting and deadly siren.

Occasionally, Doctor Who does a "just for fun" kind of episode. Last year, it was The Vampires of Venice, which also seemed to be timed around the release of Eclipse, sort of. Having rewatched the fifth series recently, I found Toby Whithouse's episode to be much better than I had remembered. Perhaps The Curse of the Black Spot will similarly appreciate in value, but as of right now, I can't imagine revisiting the episode unless it's part of a marathon viewing.

It comes down to the fact that it all feels a little rush-released. In 77 episodes of "New Who" up to this point, there hasn't been so glaring a narrative omission as the one that takes place here. Lee Ross is a relatively minor character, as the Boatswain, but he literally disappears. We see him wounded, and the black spot swells on his palm, but we cut away before he's taken. The Doctor and Avery don't ask where he went, Amy and Rory don't tell them what happened- he just drops out of the plot and reappears at the happy ending.

It shouldn't bother me, but it kind of ruins the whole episode for me. I can take as read that he was snaffled by the Siren for healing purposes off-screen, but that none of the characters ever acknowledge it just feels out of character. Not only for the Doctor, Amy and Rory, but for the programme, which is usually on the ball with even the most fantastical stories. Throw in the fact that it's probably one of the slower episodes of Doctor Who since the series returned, and the joins are all too clear in the process between bumping this one up from ninth to third in the running order and getting it to the screen.

It's not all bad news- it never is in Doctor Who. Hugh Bonneville is happy to be here, even if he seems a little bit harmless for an apparently bloodthirsty pirate. The idea of the Siren is a sound one, and Lily Cole is threatening and bewitching enough that it's convincing to see the Doctor having to second-guess his theories about what she's up to. But when she eventually turns out to be benevolent, the twist doesn't have enough momentum to land with more than a thud. Merlin director Jeremy Webb will be coming back to helm the final episode of Series 6 in the Autumn, and I can't say I'm looking forward to it.

The Curse of the Black Spot brings too little to the table for it to properly stand out. It's by far the most forgettable episode of Matt Smith's run so far, but it's no fault of the actors. In particular, Arthur Darvill does well despite Rory getting yet another death scene. He's dying every single week now- there's just no impact anymore. It's not a poorly conceived episode, but it seems to be have been turned around too quickly. It's textbook MOR Who, but it strives to be a proper swashbuckling adventure. In that much, it goes the way of the first two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels- it's disappointing, but not a total loss. 

The Doctor's Wife was bumped from the episode 3 slot and, before that, from the back end of last year's series. So Neil Gaiman's long-awaited script for the series has the Doctor receive a message that suggests there might be Time Lords, and friendly ones at that, hiding out in a bubble universe. The moment the TARDIS touches down in an impossible scrapyard, it's enfolded in a trap that brings the Doctor face to face with his oldest travelling companion, while Amy and Rory are imperilled in her corridors.

I think it's fair to say that most Doctor Who fans are unabashedly conservative in their outlook on the series, especially those fans who've been watching it since the original run. Those fans waited 16 long years, wanting a new TV series, but more importantly, most of them wanted the series to be the same as it always was. Doctor Who occasionally has to make change, especially in the new era. And Gaiman has given us an episode that could change the way you look at the last 40+ years of adventures in time and space.

Of course, the title is about as apt as The Doctor's Daughter was, being an inventive episode that was hamstrung by its high concept. Figuratively speaking, Matt Smith's Doctor and Suranne Jones, as the human manifestation of his TARDIS, are like an old married couple, hence the TARDIS being The Doctor's Wife. Some will argue that the relationship between the pilot and the motor has always been more complex than we see here, but with such grand performances and writing, I'm finding it hard to complain.

Only Smith and Jones can properly carry off the flirty dynamic between the Doctor and Idris, who's carrying the TARDIS' matrix, or personality if you will, around in her head. It was enjoyable in Day of the Moon a couple of weeks ago with the Doctor and River Song, and Smith sparks off of Jones nicely too. Jones channels Helena Bonham Carter, on whom your mileage may vary, again, as a TARDIS bamboozled by her suddenly acquired humanity. Ever since Ian Chesterton touched the door in An Unearthly Child, she's always been described as alive, and now she gets a chance to bite back after being blamed for the Doctor's directional difficulties for decades.

Inside the police box, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill get a proper subplot for a change, and it's one that only indulges in the minimal amount of Rory being killed off. There must be some kind of quota. Never mind though, because it gives them room to breathe without being upstaged by the Doctor, and they're terrorised in their expedition through the corridors by House, voiced by an oddly incognito Michael Sheen. The episode strikes a nice balance between the Doctor and his companions, but the emotional core remains apparent throughout.

As a self-contained episode, it's a very welcome reprieve from the narrative building antics of Day of the Moon, with a very small cast and some very memorable performances. Even Adrian Shiller and Elizabeth Berrington are better on-screen than their characters as written. Richard Clarke, who previously directed the sublime Gridlock, delivers another grand-scale episode that isn't a series opener, a ratings-grabber or a finale. And better, the budget put into this long anticipated story is all up there on-screen, even with the presence of an Ood and the RTD-era console room being visible cost-cutting measures.

The Doctor's Wife canonises a fan interpretation of the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS- that the latter chose the former and not the other way around- and it would be a shame if that's not acknowledged after the credits roll. Even if the events of this episode are only mentioned one more time, it would be better than entirely forgetting this episode in the more complicated arcing story of the series. It should please the fans with its copious Who literacy, and intrigue the new audience in equal measure- please, Neil Gaiman, may we have another?

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We'll return to The Zero Room in three weeks' time with reviews of the remaining episodes before the series takes a break for the summer. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, The Rebel Flesh, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 21st May at 6.45pm.

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